Amid the dust in the air was a feeling of anticipation.
The doors of Donley’s Wild West Town soon would open for the summer season, as they have for more than four decades as a family’s dream and an old-time collection evolved into an amusement park on the outskirts of Union.
Here, it’s about creating experiences, said Mike Donley as he sat down at a picnic table inside the park. The nearby carousel awaited its horses, the jail its prisoners and the gold mine its panners.
No frills. No high-tech gadgets. Just a fresh coat of paint on some buildings, some new mulch coming soon, a crew of workers trained to not only do, but also act their jobs, and the Wild West Town would be ready for business once again.
“It’s just one of these magical little places,” Donley said of the park geared toward children ages 3 to 11, which will be open weekends beginning May 20 and seven days a week beginning June 11. “The kids who come here are still young enough they believe.”
It’s a belief born of imagination, of the thrill of watching a high-noon gunfight or getting put behind bars by the town sheriff. One of the park’s most popular attractions? An old-time safe the kids are challenged to open to win $50. Only two actually have figured out the combination, but thousands try every summer as their parents and grandparents smile, Donley said.
“That’s what makes it so magical, those little moments,” he said.
Even though the family put the park up for sale last December at a cost of $7 million in Hammacher Schlemmer’s holiday catalog – believed to be the first real-estate entry in the catalog’s history – the Wild West Town isn’t going anywhere, Donley said.
Despite his reassurances, the listing has drawn quite a bit of attention to the little park nestled between farm fields and the busy Interstate 90, with national media outlets now calling upon the Donleys and many asking if it’s closing.
“All of a sudden, it’s big news. . . . I’m not closing the park,” Donley said.
“I’m looking for someone to buy it. If it takes me five or 10 years, so be it. I’m hoping it’s sooner rather than later. . . . We’ve had some inquiries. It’s going to take a special person or group. I’m not going to sell it to just anybody. Somebody has to know what they’re doing. It’s not like it’s going to ever have some other use.”
Putting on a show
What Donley’s is made to do is provide memories for its visitors and summertime jobs for teens, many looking to hone their skills for future jobs in theater, acting or even professional stunt work.
Having performed at the Wild West Town as a child, third-generation Donley, Shawnah Donley, has gone on to become a professional stunt woman, performing in “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.,” among numerous other television shows and films.
And returning to the park this year to pass on his skills to a younger generation, Bryan Kennedy of Crystal Lake used to practice his close-up magic in the Wild West Town’s jail. Later, he’d put on 15-minute shows as The Silver Kid in the saloon. He’s now a professional magician with Apollo-Magic, and Mike Donley convinced him to come back a couple of days a week this summer to work with employees.
Another returnee is Taylor Fryza, whose mother grew up in Union. She performed as a singer in the saloon last summer, but returned to New York this past year, where she has worked in theater.
When Mike Donley called to ask her to direct the shows this summer, she hopped on a plane and got to work, even taking classes on stunt work.
“The thing about Donley’s is you do a little bit of everything,” she said of the job. Her days the past few weeks have involved everything from painting to teaching gun-fighting. Every worker, from the person operating the carousel to the one guiding kids through gold-mining, must perform as if they’re part of an old wild west town back in the day.
It’s all about how to “wow the crowd,” said Fryza, dressed in boots and a hat. She asks her stunt cast to do the same daily as it’s tricky learning to walk on the performance area roof in boots and gun-fight in a fat. “The stunts are great, but it’s the characters that really sell the show,” she said.
In one show this summer, Fryza said she’ll play the Wild West Town’s first female marshal.
“After the show, girls would come up and say, ‘Did you really push that guy off the roof?’ You don’t get that in classic theater,” she said.
“You get to be the hero.”
Donley’s Wild West Town grew out of a combined family effort, as Mike’s parents, Larry and Helene, first created Seven Acres Museum on the land in 1974, showing off their eclectic collection of phonographs and other antiques. With Mike and his brother Randy (Shawnah Donley's father) – also the co-owner of Donley Auctions – by their side, they expanded, adding the goldmine, train, kiddie rides, Wild West Stunt Show, archery range and more to the museum full of artifacts from the 1800s.
“We all started it together,” Mike Donley said.
It’s been a life none have regretted, but it’s not one a third generation of Donley’s wants to lead, said Mike Donley, whose son is a freshman in college studying graphic design. To his and his brother’s children, the wild west town is kind of like “the step-brother they could never compete with.”
Dad couldn’t be at baseball games, and there weren’t really family vacations because work had to be done at the park, Mike Donley said.
“I don’t think I’d want him to take over,” he said of his son. “This wasn’t his dream. This was my dream. Life is too short. You’ve gotta live your own dream.”
DONLEY’S WILD WEST TOWN
WHEN: Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends beginning May 20, seven days a week beginning June 11 and back to weekends only Aug. 19.
WHERE: 8512 S. Union Road, Union
COST & INFO: Admission includes all rides and attractions and is $17 a person for ages 3 and older. Children ages 2 and younger are free with a paying adult. Active duty military receive $5 off with a valid military ID. Tickets available at the door. For the first time, tickets also now are available online at www.wildwesttown.com. Information: www.facebook.com/donleyswildwesttown, www.wildwesttown.com or 815-923-9000.